Please don’t reject messaging as “spin” or “manipulation”

Posted on May 22, 2019

As we go around the country giving messaging workshops, we’re nearly always asked whether our message framing is a gimmick.

After all, conservatives make it seem like a cynical game. They refer to the rich as “job creators,” school vouchers as “opportunity scholarships,” health, safety and environmental regulations as “job killers,” progressive taxes as “class warfare,” and (in unabashed Orwellian Newspeak) labor leaders as union “bosses.”

So yes, when the right-wing calls a New York Times story “fake news,” that is manipulation because it’s the opposite of truth. But our goal is to understand the vocabulary of persuadable voters and use it to accurately describe our philosophy and our proposed policy solutions.

The problem is, we progressives often use words and phrases in presentations and debate that are really designed for talking to our base. When we do that, what we’re trying to express will not be heard. It’s like going to Spain and trying to communicate in English; they speak a different language.

There are several reasons for this. As explained in PLI’s book Voicing Our Values, people outside of the progressive base are not listening in the context we’re speaking. They lack our knowledge, assumptions and beliefs. And they lack our interest in the details. When our language does not make sense to ordinary Americans, they don’t have the patience or inclination to figure it out.

Left-leaning candidates often confuse a misunderstanding of their language with a rejection of their policies. So, instead of using good messaging to embrace progressive ideas (even very popular ones like an increased minimum wage), many such candidates take “centrist” positions—which satisfy no one.

Let us neither veer to the right nor stubbornly insist on using ineffective language.

Let us let truth be heard. But if a listener does not understand what you intend to express, that truth is not heard.

Let us understand the language of our audience—as well as their culture, assumptions, biases and beliefs—and use that knowledge to speak truth.

So, in the words of the civil rights anthem, keep your eyes on the prize. Democracy enables us to do more than speak to power, it allows us to take power. That’s why we’re in politics—to correct injustice, not just to complain about it. Use language to accomplish that.